Most of us, when we think of chickens, picture the farmer’s wife (or in my case, the boyfriend’s mom) taking out her kitchen scraps to a few hens pecking around the yard. As of now, I had never thought much of the history of chickens so I decided to do a little research. Here is what I discovered.
The domestic chicken evolved from the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of southern and southeastern Asia. These jungle fowl lived in flocks which had a dominant male and a definite pecking order. Our domestic chickens have many things in common with their distant relatives.
For a long time the main reason for keeping or breeding chickens was for fighting. The original farm hens were dual purpose, being bred for both their laying and meat qualities. Gradually, through selective breeding, these characteristics were developed separately.
Little by little other breeds were introduced from Europe and from the East. Some of the best breeds were produced in North America around the turn of the 20th century, perhaps the most notable being the Rhode Island Red and the Leghorn.
After World War I, many ex-servicemen started their own poultry farms as the demand for fresh food increased. These were always free-range and it was quite common to see large fields filled with grazing hens. As demand increased, more intensive methods were developed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the preferred method was deep-litter, where many hens were housed together indoors on bedding of straw or shavings.
This progressed in the late 1960s and 1970s to the system we have today – the intensive battery farming. This is where hens spend their lives -one laying season-
in tiny cages being denied the pleasure of foraging for their own food or experiencing any daylight.
In recent years there has been a lot of negative reaction towards this method of keeping chickens, and we are again seeing a resurgence of part-time farmers and smallholders who keep chickens for their eggs, meat and quite simply for their own pleasure. Hopefully, one day consumers will give preference to free-range over the desire to buy cheap produce.